Schalke stormed back from 2-0 down to deny Mainz the chance to go back to the top of the table. The home side stopped the visitors from playing in the first half with their intense pressing and energetic attacking, but Schalke coach Ralf Rangnick rang the changes at the interval and reaped the benefits; his Jefferson Farfán-inspired side eventually proving too strong and clinical for Mainz.
Mainz got things under way at their new Coface Arena, coach Thomas Tuchel starting with the same team that defeated Bayer Leverkusen 2-0 on the opening day of the new Bundesliga season. They put Schalke’s deep 4-1-4-1 under pressure early on, forcing the visitors into fouls, back-passes, and hurried sideways delegation-balls whenever Schalke did get possession or territory. Rangnick’s game-plan seemed to hinge on his side getting the chance to counter-attack, as illustrated in the fourth minute when his four banks sat in their own half, only pressing the pass-assessor when they were primed to cross halfway.
In that particular instance, Lewis Holtby won the ball, dribbled upfield, before stalling so as to wait for the sprinting widemen – the only place for the visitors to build was in the home side’s half, especially when Mainz’s players were darting back more concerned about getting into position. Holtby slid the ball one way, before it was disguised via another pass to go out to the opposite flank. The eventual cross, from Jan Morávek, was a few inches too high, however.
That was as good as it got for Schalke in opening seven minutes, and they were soon behind. Unable to cope with Mainz’s forays forward, the players in blue had begun committing a series of fouls – Kyriakos Papadopoulos even earned a place in the referee’s book for his efforts in the fifth minute. But it was a foul by former Mainz man Christian Fuchs on Sami Allagui that proved to be the turning point, as it lined up a free-kick on the right which the left-footed Hungarian Zoltán Stieber swung in towards the back-post. As the ball neared its destination, three players in red darted towards the near post, three defenders in blue followed them, and there, in acres of space all alone behind them, was Andreas Ivanschitz, sliding in for 1-0!
The pace of the game remained fast and furious thereafter, and the lone forwards’ on either side used this to their advantage by weaving and spinning into receiving easy fouls (Klaas-Jan Huntelaar and Sami Allagui). The Tunisian’s aforementioned effort came in the 12th minute after a particularly inspired piece of passing football in the midfield from Mainz, who won the ball back and then passed their way around Schalke’s rigid, narrow and seemingly immobile midfield bank of four. Allagui, who had no support and little room to work with given the high line being deployed by Benedikt Höwedes and Joël Matip, knew that his only chance of carrying on the attack was by turning 180° with his first touch and buying the set-piece.
And Mainz used this free-kick to superb effect, teeing up the lively Allagui to shoot – tamely – from just outside the D at Ralf Fährmann. However, the goalkeeper made a meal of the shot, getting his feet and angles all wrong, and bundling the parried ball into the path of quick-thinking Colombian midfielder Elkin Soto, who fired in the loose ball for 2-0!
Two goals to the good, Mainz were still showing more energy and invention than their guests in the phases of play that followed. Schalke were stodgy in their build-up play and tracking back, whereas it wasn’t uncommon to see Allagui or Marcel Risse showing strength and patience in shackling a Schalke winger lining up a cross into Heinz Müller’s box. Attacking-wise, Stieber was a force on the left-wing, heads-down direct sprinting down the flank with the ball glued to his feet; more often than not following the pacy territory-gains with a decent cross.
Although Tuchel’s side were getting a little too direct as we approached and went beyond the 20-minute mark, the temptations of hoofing a ball over the dodgy and high Schalke defence to one of the speedy attackers being eagerly grasped with two hands, there were elements of intelligence to Mainz’s play which helped keep Schalke lethargic, deflated and pinned back. Soto was key in all of this, using his body and timing his traps to great effect – luring Raúl, Holtby and the midfield bank into pressing him, before hurriedly shifting the ball into the now-gaping corridor behind them.
It wasn’t long before Raúl was pushed up top alongside Huntelaar, as Rangnick opted for a 4-1-3-2. Yet his side’s attacks were still being hindered by some painfully ponderous build-up play; José Jurado and Morávek the biggest culprits, although the latter’s infield dribbles could have been helped by either of the strikers making better runs to widen the narrow defensive bank, giving the midfielder the opportunity to make an incision in the process.
As the half-hour-mark neared, the quiet Raúl had begun to show a few flashes of inspiration with some cheeky chips and elbaroate through-ball attempts, but his team were still to put a decent ball into the box; let alone test Müller. On the 30-minute-mark itself, they tried to string together a sharp foray forward that involved their full-backs, but Mainz got back into position and began pressing so quickly, the move was instantly broken down. Rangnick’s side began to replicate the Mainz of ten minutes ago by pumping far more passes into the air, perhaps banking on the fact that Mainz do give away an awful lot of fouls, and thus hoping to win set-pieces on the back of the hosts’ occasionally clumsy barging.
Huntelaar did manage to win or two of these long balls without drawing a foul, despite being well-marshalled by centre-backs Nikolče Noveski and Bo Svensson. These successes allowed Holtby to get the ball down and try an instigate something; generally a little one-two move. Yet even when the former Mainz man constructed something that was both quick and clever, the ball-tracker – or trackers – in red always seemed to show more desire and muscle to get on the ball, and another weapon in the Schalke attacking ‘arsenal’ was left firing blanks.
Schalke’s Dutch frontman was making more of an impact on the game as we neared half time, sometimes looking like the only man in blue – save for Holtby – capable of making a pass that wasn’t too heavy as he dropped deep and began linking play on the floor to good effect. The only drawback of this, unsurprisingly, was that the man receiving the lay-off then had to wait until Huntelaar zoomed back upfield towards the box (and even then, he had to take up a position before settling on where and when to make a dart).
This meant that Mainz were always able to take up favourable positions in time for the eventual ball in to the box; greater in frequency during the closing stages of the first 45 minutes with Fuchs in particular far more involved (Why? Well, Risse was positioned deeper at this stage of the game, helping out right-back Marco Caligiuri. The hosts’ counter-attacks were primarily being carried in the opposition half by Stieber and Ivanschitz, although the piano-carrying Soto deserves a mention too for getting the ball to them nigh-on every time).
Jurado and Morávek can’t have been too surprised to see themselves replaced for the second half, with Julian Draxler and Farfán taking their places on the left and right-hand channels respectively. Tuchel also made a change, replacing Risse with Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting. The men in blue made the brighter start to the new half, playing with greater urgency, cohesion and end-product.
With Choupo-Moting now stationed on the left, Marco Höger, tormented so often in the first half by Stieber, saw it as an invitation to come forward more often. The Cameroonian’s height meant that Mainz began the half by looking for more long restarts than their usual short ones. However, the tactic wasn’t working, and with Schalke now less stodgy and slow in coming forward, it was keeping Mainz on the back foot.
Both Farfán and Draxler had done more in their first ten minutes on the pitch than either Jurado and Morávek had done in 45. Their levels of skill and penetration were tearing holes in the Mainz defence, although with Fuchs and Höger involved alongside their respective wingers every step of the way, when the hosts’ did break a move down, there was now room for their own full-backs to come forward (something they didn’t do too often in the first half). Resultantly, it was the men in red who had the half’s first real chance – Caligiuri winning a free-kick which was eventually teed-up for a right-footed Choupo-Moting thunderbolt from just outside the D which went narrowly wide.
Nevertheless, a cross from Draxler in the 56th minute deserved to create a chance: the inch-perfect delivery that curled along the ground and ended up four feet out from the centre of the goal was slid to safety superbly by Noveski, who’d kept a very disciplined eye on Huntelaar’s dart. But one minute later, Schalke had pulled a goal back through their Dutch star. It started when a pass was slipped through Mainz’s narrow, offside-trap attempting defence. Raúl, the in-box recipient of the pass just behind Malik Fathi, played on as Mainz forgot to play to the whistle and stood their with palms raised knowingly in the air. The Spaniard, under no pressure, took his time before squaring to Huntelaar, who had the simple task of tapping in for 2-1!
Tuchel made a change in personnel and system, bringing on Germany U21 midfielder Jan Kirchhoff for the now redundant Stieber, and switching from a 4-2-3-1 to a 4-3-1-2 (or 4-4-2 diamond, whatever your interpretation). The tall Kirchhoff was a must at this stage of the game, as Schalke were putting in cross after cross. But their 63rd minute equalizer came from a looping right-footed Farfán corner, the ball landing on the forehead of Höwedes at the back post for 2-2 (Choupo-Moting too willingly let him go)!
Inspired by their Peruvian winger, it was now Schalke making the slicker and more accurate passes, with Mainz’s own balls heavy and overly-complicated. With Raúl floating behind the high-roving Huntelaar, and Holtby more or less alongside a higher Papadopoulos, Schalke had a greater frequency of players able to take a pass in space. And when that quartet found themselves – sometimes willingly – marked, there was space for Farfán to bring the ball infield and make things happen.
With Ivanschitz on the fringes of the game but, Tuchel sought to get the Austrian involved again by moving him back as he changed to 4-3-3 – also an attempt to pin Fuchs and Höger back in their own half via wide, three-pronged attack, whilst continuing his bid to suffocate the defence-midfield corridor. On came Petar Slišković, replacing Soto and going to centre-forward, as Allagui went to a left-sided striker position and Ivanschitz to the left-side of centre-midfield.
But it was another set-piece from Farfán in the 81st minute that proved to be the undoing of his side, the Peruvian winger both winning and taking the set-piece, which again caused confusion and saw no one in red take responsibility. After a bit of box pinball, it was Matip who dive-headed the ball in for 3-2!
The hosts looked absolutely shattered, and struggled to get out of their own half for the remainder of the game. Choupo-Moting showed occasional flashes of skill to engineer shooting or passing room, but when he laid a chance on a plate for Eugen Polanski in the 84th minute, the knackered Pole fluffed his lines and sliced wide. Huntelaar was replaced by Romanian striker Ciprian Marica in the closing stages, but it was an Austrian, Fuchs, who completed the job for Schalke in the 89th minute.
The former Mainz left-back curled a left-footed free-kick from the right side of the D into the bottom left-hand corner – Müller and his wall were poorly positioned, obviously expecting Fuchs to curl it towards the top right-hand corner. The game finished 4-2, and perhaps doesn’t reflect how superior Mainz were in the first half. But, as the cliché goes, football is a game of two halves, and Schalke proved that this afternoon.